This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Around 10:30 Tuesday morning, Jaime Longo arrived at her children’s school, Houston Elementary in Mount Airy. She didn’t have to touch the door – it was propped open at the bottom and an elbow shove would suffice. At the top of the stairs in front of her, a Houston staffer sat behind a desk covered with piles of learning packets, divided by grade level.
Longo, whose children are in 1st and 3rd grades, picked up a packet and talked about what her days are like during this unprecedented time.
As a professor of English at La Salle Univerisity with a doctoral degree, she is better positioned than most to offer her children valuable learning activities. Still, doing this while teaching her LaSalle classes remotely is not easy.
“I spent a lot of time this weekend on a schedule and syllabus for both of my kids,” she said. Using educator jargon, she added, “I am trying to build out scaffolding for them.”
Her daily schedule includes building in exercise as well as academic work. Monday it was a 40-minute walk; today, it is yoga. What is important, she said, is to create a routine.
She pointed out that some children’s book illustrators are posting videos online to offer kids worthwhile breaks, including the popular author-illustrator of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Mo Willems.
Plus, she added: “I have actually always wanted to try homeschooling.”
There are challenges. She was going over math with one of her sons, a problem about perimeter. She said that he solved one problem correctly, but then couldn’t transfer what he had learned to another problem. How to help him? How would a 3rd-grade teacher handle that?? Her first dilemma.
Principal LeRoy Hall Jr., was at Houston, along with several other staffers. They were giving out packets even though Houston is not a designated schoolwork pickup site. Teachers did not have the opportunity to hand out packets on Friday like many schools; it was one of the 63 schools that closed because more than 15% of teachers were ordered to stay in their Montgomery County homes by the governor’s order.
Hall said the packets cover one or two weeks of work, supplemented by a wealth of material available on the District website. Over about 15 minutes, three parents and one older student came to pick up packets.
Asked whether the District had given out guidelines for being at a school building that was not a designated meal pickup site, Hall said no. He decided on his own to head over to the school to hand out packets, and several staffers offered to help him out.
Hall said he felt “compelled” to be at his school, at least that day.
“We are extending ourselves for the Mount Airy community,” he said. “Some parents don’t have internet access, so we wanted to make sure we had hard copies. Even with internet access, people want hard copies.”
Specialized packets were available for students with autism, emotional issues, and other special needs, he said.
On Sunday, Hall had a voluntary virtual staff meeting via Zoom, which most of the teachers joined – more than 30 – “on their own time.” Every grade but one was represented. They talked about specific plans and messaging to parents.
He put together an agenda for the meeting that included discussion of their goals – what they are trying to do and the barriers to accomplishing those goals. “We brainstormed,” he said.
Houston Elementary principal LeRoy Hall at the entrance to his school. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)
He noted that Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members technically are not supposed to be “volunteering their time.” But his goal, he said, “is to make sure students have grade-level materials,” while emphasizing that the District’s additional materials are available “if they fly through the packets.”
Houston, and some other District schools, also use ClassDojo, which is a way for parents and teachers to communicate, like a messaging app. “Dojo has helped us a lot through this process,” he said.
There was also some limited technology, a few laptops, calculators, and headphones, that parents could sign out for home use.
Houston, on Allens Lane, is not one of the city’s poorest schools – Hall estimated that maybe 20% of his families don’t have internet access, although he emphasized that this was a very rough guess. And even for families that do have computers at home, the school has no way of knowing whether they have printing capabilities or whether they can read certain kinds of documents, “and we don’t want to hold anything against a kid.”
Elsewhere in the city, some teachers have been trying to stay connected and boost students’ spirits by posting videos on Facebook of themselves reading books, including teachers at Mitchell and Nebinger Elementary Schools.
The principal of Mitchell said that in just an hour of being open yesterday, nearly 100 families visited to pick up their packets. Loesche Elementary in the far Northeast reported having 650 parents stop by for packets over two days.
Hall said teachers have options to correspond with students, although his understanding is that they are “not obligated” to offer online instruction.
He is correct. City teachers have been told by the state, the District, and the PFT that they are not mandated to provide instruction to students as long as the schools are closed.
“School staff should be working from home to the extent feasible when schools are closed, reviewing student work, calling or being available for calls from students and families regarding the packets,” said District spokeswoman Monica Lewis. She added that they “will not be penalized for giving his or her time to students with materials in the packets. … They are allowed to do that. They are not required to do that.”
Communication from the PFT reminded teachers that they “are not required to provide instruction for students during this shutdown,” before going on to list links to “resources for the students you serve as well as for your own children and for your family and neighbors.”
This follows guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education that schools are not required to provide instruction during this time.
“Although not required, many schools have plans, or are creating plans, to provide continuity of education,” the PDE guidance says.
The issue is partly logistical – teachers are not with their students, and they have families to take care of. Lewis, the District’s spokeswoman, noted that many Philadelphia households do not have the technology to engage remotely with teachers, unlike in some suburban districts where everybody is online.
But the issue is also partly legal. If districts or schools strive to provide “continuity of education,” they have to make sure that they are meeting the legal obligations to students with special needs and English learners – something much harder to do under these circumstances.
Teachers and parents are still trying to sort it all out.
Parent Stephanie King, who has a 4th grader and a kindergartner at Kearny Elementary School in Northern Liberties, said that her students’ teachers have been sending links and instructions to read certain books or do particular math sets. However, there can be logistical problems. For instance, one teacher sent math worksheets as PDFs, which generally need to be printed.
“We’re a well-off family, and we don’t have the capability to print at home,” said King. “I do feel like this time is widening the gap between households with resources and households without.”
“There are those with multiple devices, who can work at home – their children will be able to keep up with learning during this time,” she said. “While those only accessing the internet through their phones and still going to work at CVS or the grocery store, their kids are more likely to continue to lose progress.”
Shonda Wayman is a preschool teacher at KenCrest whose daughter is also a 4th grader at Kearny. Like many Philadelphians, she has been told to stay home from work, at least for this week.
So far, she said, her daughter’s teacher has sent over math worksheets via ClassDojo and First in Math, an online curriculum. The recommendation is for the students to work on the material twice a day for a half-hour each.
She considers herself fortunate because she has the capacity to print at home; both she and her husband, who works for the city, have laptops, and her daughter has an iPad, all in addition to their smartphones.
If a family doesn’t have access to a printer, she said, the recommendation is that “they copy it on loose-leaf the old fashioned way and hand it in when they go back to school.”
Like King, she worries about less-fortunate families. “For other parents who might still have to work who can’t afford to be home or really don’t have the food to feed their children, that‘s when it becomes a problem,” she said.
Teachers are also struggling with the new normal.
Charlie McGeehan, a humanities teacher at the U School, is supervising senior projects for his students, who need the credits to graduate. He is trying to establish a routine, especially now that he is also caring for his 21-month-old while at home.
“We’ve got senior project presentations scheduled for the middle of May, but who knows when we will be back in school,” he said.
The U School, although the District did not encourage or help with this, had the foresight to do some advance planning.
“All of us, pretty much, at my school are at least doing something to stay in touch with students,” he said.
A small alternative high school, the U School has an advisory structure, in which each teacher is in charge of a “posse” of 15-20 students.
McGeehan said he is emailing his posse and having daily check-ins. “Our principal has encouraged us to set aside an hour of office hours each day,” McGeehan said. “Students can sign up for a 10-minute virtual meeting.”
His students had been doing their senior projects on what they call “wicked” problems that affect their lives – gun violence, mental health, addiction, climate change. He is giving them the choice to pivot and focus on COVID-19.
The U School has invested in technology, so most students have laptops, which makes it easier but still doesn’t solve everything. Many no longer have the access they need to resources for their original projects, which are still at school. Under the circumstances, “I’m trying to have them do as much senior project work they can do.”
He said that so far, he and other teachers are lacking guidance from the District about grading, among other issues – the marking period ends next week and grades are supposed to be in the week after that. Should they grade students based on their work so far? Should they earn credits if they had kept up before the shutdown? His English 4 students were in the middle of a group project that now they can’t finish – how do you grade that?
“I’ve had to do some shifting around, and I might have to do more if we’re out longer,” he said. The staff is planning a Google hangout session for Wednesday morning, with the hope that updates on these issues will be forthcoming.
“This is definitely uncharted territory, and we are trying to do the best we can for the kids.”